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Pope Francis Against the World

The backlash from liberals and conservatives alike is good for his mission


Peak Pope, a condition of exhaustion with Pope Francis and his public presence, has come and gone a couple of times during his short papacy. The first came back in the spring of 2014, when, after a year of homilies, sermons, and impromptu speeches, casual Francis fans in the media seemed to feel they had heard all they wanted to out of the pontiff. But Francis appeared set to maintain the enthusiasm of his media audience for just a little longer with the announcement and subsequent release of his encyclical on ecology, Laudato Si, in June. Whatever honeymoon may have issued from Francis’s bold treatment of climate change through the lens of Catholic moral theology has, however, ended. While conservatives increasingly disapprove of Francis for his seemingly leftward take on capitalism and the environment, liberals have had enough of his old-school Catholicism.

The list of disappointments with Francis seems to lengthen every day, from all quarters. He is too ardently opposed to abortion. He has reaffirmed the Church’s longstanding position on the all-male priesthood. He is not fond of free market capitalism or birth control, though both do, by various accounts, reduce poverty. He is too cold-hearted toward the rich. He has failed to make the sacrament of marriage available to gay and lesbian Catholics who can now legally marry in all 50 states. And Laudato Si, Francis’ newly released encyclical on ecology and the environment? Boring, unclear, and weak. Pope Francis can’t win.

On one hand, the Pope’s predicament is an inevitably product of celebrity. Anyone who presents themselves to the world with a positive mission will be heckled eventually, either for its failure if they don’t succeed, or its myopia if it succeeds but isn’t expansive enough. This is the same paradox Bernie Sanders has faced: no matter how good you are at advancing the causes you’re passionate about, the gleam of the spotlight only makes your perceived shortcomings more prominent.

But for Francis, this might not be a bad thing in the long run. As the world grows wearily acquainted with the pontiff, the greatest source of collective frustration seems to be that he is, at the end of the day, a rather traditional Catholic. His great success as a Pope has arisen not from his willingness to import new or extra-doctrinal ideas into standing Catholic doctrine, but from his ability to present classic facets of Christian theology and Catholic tradition in a way that makes them relevant and exciting. His credibility within the Church (however grudgingly conservatives regard his choice of subjects) depends on this steadfast commitment to the Church’s long tradition. And the credibility of the Church depends, in large part, on that as well.

After all, it isn’t as though Francis has not made any notable reforms. It is only that the reforms he has made have corrected for departures from tradition, not too much agreement with it. He has, for example, made significant progress toward holding those responsible for the cover-up of child sex abuse within the church accountable for their crimes. Along with ridding the Church of several clerics associated with the cover-up, Francis created a tribunal for the trial of further bishops suspected of involvement. The Pope has also—crucially—included abuse victims on his commission for the redress of child sex abuse at the hands of the Church. It isn’t possible to undo the harm that was done by decades of sex abuse and the abetting of abusers by members of the Church hierarchy, but Francis seems committed to doing everything in his power to prevent further incidents of abuse and conspiracy.

His other improvements include a shake-up of the Vatican’s bank, which had, prior to Francis’s papacy, been associated with widespread corruption and embezzlement; and his closure of the investigation into the Leadership Conference of the Women Religious that began under his predecessor. The investigation concerned the supposed radical feminism of the LCWR, a conference of American nuns. After thanking the sisters for their work for the poor and suffering, Francis concluded the Vatican’s inquiry last April. Along with American nuns, Francis has also warmed relations with the Eastern Orthodox church, another gesture toward harmony within the faith.

In the spaces where his authority is most effective, Francis has been a respectable reformer. And perhaps the mistake made by the media all along has been to conclude that because Pope Francis can speak morally to a variety of issues we tend to think of as detached from moral reasoning (like economics, inequality, and property) that his authority is less limited than it really is. The truth is that Francis’s greatest ability outside the Church is his capacity to inspire, especially in those who don’t normally look to Catholic moral theology for their inspiration. But this is a capacity quite separate from the kind of authority that would allow him to make the sudden and capacious changes which his discontents demand: the ordination of women priests, the extension of sacraments beyond their traditional form, the total rearrangement of the Church’s approach to life and birth. Even if Pope Francis wanted to dramatically alter the Church’s position on these subjects, he just isn’t capable of it, for a variety of theological and bureaucratic reasons.

What he can do is speak from within the tradition to encourage shifts in priorities and greater adherence to the principles his flock should already be living by. In effect this has meant, for Francis, prioritizing economic justice, care for the environment, and special interest in the harms of poverty, as opposed to the older frontline issues of abortion and sexuality. It has also meant demonstrating through his own words and actions the kind of humility and mercy that really feels Christ-like.

Doing what he can, in other words, is all Francis can do: at first we loved him for it, and now it seems we are increasingly displeased with him for it (in some political circles) or restively dissatisfied with him for not doing even more. Yet it is hard to deny that his focus and comportment have returned a sense of credibility and moral coherence to a Church that was, at the time he ascended the papacy, suffering badly from damage to both due to decades of sexual abuse. If Francis can reverse that harm enough to make the Catholic moral approach to global problems relevant and resonant again—indeed, it would be hard to argue he hasn’t done just that—then he has done what is within his power to do, and it doesn’t matter at the end of the day if we like him for it or not.